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Wisconsin families face back-to-school shopping sticker shock

National Retail Federation expects spending to reach record levels

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A shopper looks at a paper list while her son looks over her shoulder from the shopping cart.
Donielle Buchanan Polk reads from a list of school supplies while shopping with her son, Carter, who will be going into the first grade Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at Target in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Vivianna Capozzi quickly slipped a $16 disco ball for her locker into her mom’s cart at Target in West Milwaukee.

“Please — I’ll buy it if you don’t want to,” she told her mother.

Vivianna is starting her freshman year at Wauwatosa East High School and wants to make sure she has the right accessories and spiral notebooks.

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She said her mom normally lets her get what she wants, but sometimes the items cost too much.

“Of course, I’m a little disappointed, but I’ve learned to go with it,” Vivianna said.

Despite reports that inflation is cooling, there is sticker shock in the back-to-school aisles this year with Wisconsin families paying upwards of $10 for pencils and $45 for water bottles.

Glue sticks and scissors are displayed with prices on a shelf.
School supplies are displayed on shelves in Target on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Mom Allegra Capozzi is shopping for three — Vivianna, a sixth-grade son and herself. Capozzi is a special education teacher.

“Prices have gone up pretty much across the board,” Capozzi said. “And of course, our children don’t want the basic supplies. They definitely want all those nicer items that they see on social media, and they feel like they have to keep up with the other kids.”

Capozzi thinks she’ll probably end up spending at least $400 this fall on school supplies. By the end of the year, she said she’ll spend about $1,000 on her children and her own classroom supplies.

A mom and her son look at a school supply list in a store.
Special education teacher Allegra Capozzi shops for school supplies at Target with hr son, 6th-grader Rocco Schofield, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Capozzi isn’t alone.

Back-to-school spending for K-12 students is expected to total $41.5 billion this year, up from a previous high of $31.1 billion in 2021, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics.

Demand for electronics is what’s driving up spending, the survey found, with spending in that category expected to be about $15 billion.

Over the past year, inflation in the United States has dropped from 9 percent to 3 percent, easing price pressures. But overall prices have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In June, core prices were up 4.1 percent from a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve.

Families with children in elementary, middle and high schools are expected to spend an average of $890 on back-to-school items this year. College students and their families are expected to spend $1,367.

A school supply list is printed on a piece of paper.
Allegra Capozzi holds a list of school supplies for her children while shopping at Target on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The retail federation survey found 43 percent of people who are spending more this year said they need new items, while another 32 percent of people said they need to buy big-ticket items such as a computer, phone, calculator or dorm furniture.

“Even though consumers plan to spend more on school and college-related items this year, they are still looking to find the best value and deals,” Phil Rist, Prosper executive vice president, said in a statement. “Consumers are stretching their dollars by comparing prices, considering off-brand or store-brand items, and are more likely to shop at discount stores than last year.”

Back at Target in West Milwaukee, Donielle Buchanan Polk is shopping for her three boys who are in first, seventh and ninth grades. She said as her children get older, the prices get higher.

Before getting to Target, Buchanan Polk went to Dollar Tree to look for deals, but still ended up spending about $35.

“(The schools) want us to get extra supplies to share with all the kids,” Buchanan Polk said. “The older they’ve gotten the more expensive they’ve gotten.”

Two people pull items off of display racks in Target while shopping.
Gladys Cruz, left, shops for school supplies with her sister, Joselen Cruz, right, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at Target in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Sisters Gladys and Joselen Cruz are shopping for school supplies and said with the cost they’re going to be choosy.

“I’m only buying some stuff, because they ask you for a lot of stuff, and you don’t end up using it,” said Gladys, who is going to be a junior at Ronald Reagan High School. “Why buy six notebooks? That’s a lot of money to spend.”

Editor’s note: WPR reporter Margaret Faust contributed to this report.

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